Nato chief visits Helsinki, leaves door open for Finnish membership

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and members of the North Atlantic Council began a two-day official visit to Finland on Monday.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at a press conference following his meeting with Finland's President Sauli Niinistö on Monday. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Military alliance NATO's Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, began a two-day official visit to Finland on Monday along with the North Atlantic Council, which consists of NATO ambassadors.

The occasion marks the first time that members of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's principal political decision-making body, have visited Finland in an official capacity.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö discussed bilateral relations with Stoltenberg at the Presidential Palace on Monday morning, which was followed by a joint press conference where the secretary general said the door remained open for Finland to join the military alliance.

"Finland is one of NATO's closest partners and we very much appreciate the fact that we have been able to strengthen this partnership over the last years," Stoltenberg said. "While we work closely together, NATO also fully respects Finland's strong independent security policy."

President Niinistö has previously stated that Finland becoming a member of NATO is a possibility, and noted during the Monday afternoon press conference that relations between the Nordic nation and NATO have developed in recent years and "continue to develop".

"We have a lot of common understandings about how we can guarantee the most important thing in ordinary people's lives, that is peace," Niinistö said.

However, Finland's neighbour Russia has become increasingly uneasy with what it sees as NATO’s encroachment on its natural sphere of influence.

Stoltenberg's visit to Finland comes at a time when NATO-Russia relations are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, the secretary general noted.

News agency Reuters reported (siirryt toiseen palveluun) earlier this month that NATO expelled eight members of Russia's mission to the alliance as they were considered to be "undeclared Russian intelligence officers".

Russia responded earlier last week by announcing that it would close its NATO mission in Brussels and withdraw diplomatic accreditation from NATO's Moscow offices, as reported (siirryt toiseen palveluun) by the BBC.

Stoltenberg and the council members will also meet with Finland's Prime Minister, Sanna Marin (SDP), Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green), Minister of Defence Antti Kaikkonen (Cen), Speaker of Parliament Anu Vehviläinen (Cen) as well as the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence before departing to Sweden on Tuesday.

Meanwhile the Presidential Office confirmed on Monday that Niinistö will travel to Moscow on Friday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"As for NATO-Russia relations, deterrence is at a good level, but the dialogue is not working very well. In my discussions with Russian leaders, I have emphasised the need for a dialogue between Russia and the West," Niinistö told the press conference on Monday afternoon.